Lots of people are just not getting enough sleep these days. This could be involuntarily or due to some poor nighttime habits. But sleeping is hugely important to our overall health and wellbeing. It’s vital for healing the body and necessary for our brains to properly function. The importance of a good night’s rest cannot be overstated. I’ve often struggled with falling asleep, which led me to try melatonin supplements. Below I’ll go into just what melatonin is, a recap of my own experiences with it, and some tips on how and when to take melatonin. Finally, we’ll go over some alternative sleep aids that might be helpful to those who don’t want to rely on supplements.
Before going further, let’s make it clear that we’re discussing melatonin supplements in relation to the everyday person who might have a little trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. If you suffer from serious insomnia, melatonin may still be right for you, but be sure to consult with a professional about your condition first.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by our bodies. It’s made by the pineal gland in our brains and helps regulate our body’s inner clock, or circadian rhythm. Our bodies instinctively know to produce more melatonin at the onset of night, allowing us to fall asleep more easily at the end of the day. It’s why we naturally feel more sleepy in dark environments as opposed to bright ones.
The melatonin we can find at stores is a form of the hormone that’s been synthesized in a lab. The hormone is also present in some foods like walnuts and olives. For that reason, the supplement isn’t heavily regulated in the United States and Canada, and can be purchased easily over the counter.
Other countries like the UK have some confusing laws pertaining to melatonin. While not often sold in stores, it’s legal to purchase online and get it shipped to you. Melatonin supplements also fall into a grey area in many other European countries, as well as in Australia. Most people who want it order it from the United States with no issues. If you’re interested in ordering melatonin online, it’s best to research the laws in your own country before ordering.
The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep
You could eat right, exercise often and do your best to avoid harmful chemicals, but how healthy really are you if you can’t get a good night’s sleep? To put it simply, if you’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re not living up to your full potential.
There are a lot of different reasons why so many of us fail to get adequate sleep. It could be because of too much internet before bed time, an overwhelming workload, too much coffee consumption or an anxious and overactive mind. Whatever the case may be, failing to get a good night’s sleep comes with a number of consequences.
A lot goes on when we sleep with both our bodies and our brains. When in a deep, restful sleep, our bodies balance hormones, heal injuries and repair damaged tissue. On the brain side of things, a good sleep helps us remember important information we learned that day. Sleep also allows the brain to rest so that it can be alert and responsive the following day.
And then there’s the topic of dreams. Without getting too deep into psychology, it’s widely believed that dreams help us process many of our life experiences on an emotional level. Memories of certain people or events that we may try to suppress while we’re awake often show up in our dreams. Some psychologists believe that that’s a good thing, as dreaming allows us to work out certain issues that we’re not always proficient at processing consciously. But the shallower the sleep, the less effective this emotional processing becomes.
A “good night’s sleep,” of course, is a vague term that’s a little different for everybody. Most doctors recommend 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Personally, that’s what I need to properly function the next day. Some people claim to only require 4 or 5 hours of sleep. I’ve always been jealous of those people, but will never become one of them. I’ve tried many times, but after only 5 hours of sleep I just feel awful!
You likely already know the number of sleep hours that works best for you. The question is, are you really sleeping that amount of time each night?
Sleep, of course, is not only about the number of hours slept. Depth is also important. We enter the ‘rapid eye movement,’ or REM phase when our dreams are at their most vivid. But there’s also an even deeper phase of non-REM sleep. This deepest phase is when the body does most of the work to repair itself from injury. Even if we’re not aware of the science behind sleep, humans instinctively know to get a good night’s rest when sick or injured. (1)
Waking up in the middle of the night can interrupt the brain’s REM cycle, thus diminishing the quality of sleep and leaving someone feeling unrested the next day. Some people have no problem falling asleep but have issues with frequently getting woken up, which is another reason why many seek out external aids like melatonin or sleeping pills.
The Harmful Side Effects of Common Sleeping Pills
Before we dive deeper into the benefits and potential drawbacks of melatonin, let’s take a look at why you don’t want to be taking typical sleeping pills. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter medications.
One of the most popular prescription sleep aids these days in Ambien, which is one of the brand names for the chemical zolpidem. Ambien was originally touted as a safer alternative to even more harmful prescription meds. But after a couple decades of common use, more and more people are starting to learn of its harmful side effects.
Side effects include nausea, diarrhea, depression and, ironically, insomnia. Disturbingly, people can become addicted to the drug and withdrawal effects can become serious. People have also been reported to sleep walk and even sleep drive while on Ambien. (2)
Some of the common over-the-counter sleeping aids include Tylenol PM, Advil PM or Nytol. A lot of these products combine cough and cold relief with a sleep aid. But as we already went over here, there are plenty of reasons to be weary of this kind of cough medicine.
Side effects of over-the-counter sleep medication include daytime drowsiness, liver problems and gastrointestinal problems. They could also potentially become addicting. (3)
Is Melatonin Safe?
Melatonin is generally considered safe. The most common side effects people complain of are dizziness or headaches (see more about ‘melatonin hangovers’ down below). According to an article by the New York Times, you should think twice about taking melatonin if you’re on prescription meds for diabetes or blood pressure. (4)
The main concerns surrounding melatonin are based on the fact that it’s still a relatively new supplement. While there aren’t any serious side effects associated with melatonin, we still don’t really know about potential harm caused by long-term use.
While not necessarily a side effect, another thing you should know about melatonin is that it will likely give you more vivid dreams than you’re accustomed to. Some people have a hard time with this and stop taking melatonin as a result. At least in my case, dreams could sometimes get intense but I never had any nightmares while taking melatonin. Conversely, I’d sometimes wake up feeling like I’d just returned home from a grand adventure.
My Experiences With Melatonin
Taking Melatonin for Jet Lag
I first tried taking melatonin after reading that it was good for jet lag. Like many people, I get pretty bad jet lag when traveling to the opposite side of the world. Sometimes I end up waking up in the middle of the night for several days straight. Melatonin, I’d read, helps your body readjust its circadian rhythm so that you can adapt to the day/night cycle of wherever it is that you are.
And in my case, it worked. After taking melatonin, I was able to fall asleep at a normal time and actually stay asleep, mostly eliminating jet lag after a day or two.
Taking Melatonin on a Regular Basis
After my success with melatonin for jet lag, I tried taking it regularly. Why? Because I’ve often had difficulties falling asleep at night. And for some reason, over the years I’ve gradually become more sensitive to light and sound when I sleep. I figured that if melatonin is considered safe, natural and chemical free, then why not also take it on those nights when I lie awake in bed?
And melatonin came through for me again. One tablet would do the trick and I would sleep easily and deeply, feeling refreshed the next morning.
Developing a Melatonin Tolerance
I soon noticed, though, that taking just one tablet wasn’t enough. I found myself still lying awake in bed some nights after taking the same amount that would’ve knocked me right out before. So I tried doubling the amount, which worked.
But there would be nights when I’d go to my bottle of melatonin tablets, only to find it empty. And without it, I’d have a much harder time falling asleep again. While I never in any way felt addicted to it physically, I did start to become dependent on it for normal sleep, especially as my tolerance continued to grow.
Personally, I haven’t experienced any bad side effects from melatonin other than some mild ‘melatonin hangovers.’ For me, they’d consist of waking up some mornings feeling groggy and with a bad case of brain fog. Nowhere near as an alcohol hangover, though! And I never experienced any headaches from melatonin. But many other people do report them.
Typically, after some light stretching, a shower and coffee, I’d feel good as new and the melatonin hangover would no longer be detectable. But why did this happen some mornings and not others? While I can’t say for sure, I think it has something to do with taking melatonin too late in the night, already past the time I normally fall asleep on other nights. With that in mind, knowing when to take melatonin could be a factor in preventing these ‘melatonin hangovers.’
Do I Still Take Melatonin?
The ‘melatonin hangovers’ were not bad enough to get me to stop taking it. For me, the positives far outweighed the negative. But the reason I no longer take melatonin on a regular basis anymore is because of the simple fact that at one point, I felt the need to take it on a regular basis. I just don’t like knowing that I’m dependent on any one thing for such a normal function like sleep.
Looking at the topic of sleep from a holistic perspective, it’s safe to say that if you need supplements every night to sleep, something else is out of order with either your health or your lifestyle. Or sometimes, in the case of nightmare neighbors, you might just need to move!
I decided to look at alternative ways, which I’ve listed down below, to prepare for sleep at night. Changing my habits, listening to soothing music and drinking calming teas have proven successful. I’m now able to get a decent sleep again without the need for melatonin.
I still do, however, have a positive view of melatonin overall. I think it’s an excellent tool to get over jet lag. And I might take a tablet or two when I realize those neighbors down the hall won’t be finishing their late night party anytime soon.
All in all, I would definitely recommend taking melatonin supplements if you’re having trouble sleeping. But you should also more closely examine why it is you think you’re having trouble sleeping in the first place, and change the things that you can.
When to Take Melatonin
If you’re taking tablets, you generally want to take them 20 – 30 minutes before you plan to sleep. The back of the bottle of the ones I usually take recommends 20 minutes. There’s also liquid melatonin available, for which even less time may be required.
But what happens if you take melatonin and you suddenly receive an urgent email that you need to respond to, or some other incident occurs that you need to stay awake for? I can only speak from my own experience, but it never turned out to be a big deal. I did indeed get sleepier from 20 minutes after swallowing the tablet, but it didn’t knock me out either. I could still function normally if something came up.
That’s one of the scary things about taking chemical-based sleeping pills. When they kick in, you can sometimes really feel like you have no control over your body anymore. But melatonin doesn’t do that and feels much more natural (because it is!) That’s another reason why I’ve felt secure and at ease taking melatonin.
Determining the Right Melatonin Dosage
If you’re new to melatonin supplements, you might be confused by how many milligrams to take. You’ll find products ranging from 1 all the way up to 10 mg!
Like with anything you’re trying out for the first time, start small. Try one tablet of either 1mg or maybe 3mg and see how it works for you. You might decide that 1mg is too weak, or 3mg a little too strong. But as mentioned above, you’ll build up a tolerance over time, which is one of melatonin’s main downsides.
I started with 3mg, simply because I knew little about melatonin when I first tried it. The 3mg happened to be the most common dosage on the shelf at the time. I’ve also tried taking 5mg tablets, which, as one would guess, are noticeably stronger. The only times I’ve tried taking 10mg tablets were to combat jet lag, and I generally stuck with a couple 3mg or a single 5mg tablet.
That’s just my experience. Again, if you’re interested in taking melatonin supplements, start small and see what happens.
What I’ve Tried
Though I was certain I’d tried at least 2 or 3 different brands, it turns out all the melatonin I’ve bought was the Natrol brand. The reason for my confusion was that they use a few different label designs just for their melatonin products alone.
Anyway, I can say that they work. I’ve tried both the regular tablets in addition to the ‘time release’ kind. The time release variety did seem to help me sleep a little more deeply, but not too deep to avoid being woken up by sudden loud noises. There a lot of brands out there, so feel free to experiment with different kinds to determine which works best for you.
Other Natural Ways to a Get Better Sleep
There are some other ways to get yourself to fall asleep at night that don’t involve taking a supplement. Try these first if you’re considering melatonin or another kind of sleeping aid. Or, if you’re already taking melatonin nightly as a habit, you could start trying these ideas or techniques to help wean yourself off.
Drinking a calming tea at night can be an effective and healthy alternative to synthetic supplements. Some popular calming herbal teas include lemon balm, chamomile, lavender and valerian, to name just a few.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Ever tried to meditate in the day time and struggled with drowsiness after awhile? Well, why not just try meditating at night? That way you won’t have to feel guilty about falling asleep!
If you don’t know what ASMR is, it stands for ‘Autonomous sensory meridian response.’ But that’s likely confused you even more. Basically, ASMR refers to certain ‘trigger’ sounds which produce a relaxing tingling sensation in the listener, especially at the top of the scalp. You can also feel tingles in your shoulders, back, or anywhere in the body.
Simply go to Youtube, type in ASMR and you’ll have literally thousands of videos to choose from. Many ASMR video producers make videos specifically for those with trouble sleeping. I love ASMR and often put a video on in the background while reading a book at night.
Stop Looking at Screens Before Bed
Make it a habit to stop looking at screens (TV, computer, smartphone, whatever) for an hour or two before bed time. Not only does the increased mental stimulation make it harder to sleep at night, but the brightness of the screen can inhibit your brain from naturally producing melatonin on its own.
This kind of contradicts the point above about ASMR, as most ASMR content is found on YouTube. You could try downloading just the audio track of your favorite videos, or dim the brightness of your screen a bit if you prefer to watch.
Stop Listening to Upbeat Music Before Bedtime
What kind of music you listen to at night can also impact your sleep. People listen to upbeat, energetic music at the gym to help get them pumped up for strenuous exercise. But if you’re some who struggles with sleep, it’s probably best to hold off on that “Sweatin to The Oldies Vol. 3” tape until morning.
The same applies for action-packed movies or TV. Think of the music you enjoy and put it into a ‘calming’ or a ‘stimulating’ category. Before bedtime, only consume calming music or media and not the stimulating kind. It sounds too simple to be true, but it really works.
I have melatonin to thank for many deep and restful sleeps. If you’re someone who really struggles with sleep at night, it can be a fantastic alternative to potentially dangerous chemical-based medicines. And hopefully you now have a better understanding of when to take melatonin and how much. While taking melatonin every night is certainly better than not getting a good night’s sleep at all, also consider changing some of your habits first to see if you can start sleeping better completely naturally.